In writer-director David Zellner’s Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, we’re invited in to the very private world of Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) a 27-year-old Japanese woman working for an obnoxious boss in a dull office, while fending off her berating mother and dealing with more than her fair share of social awkwardness. It’s a story we’ve seen played out many times before, but the combination of Rinko Kikuchi’s charm and the Japanese setting helps the film avoid the stale, repetitive feel that it might have held otherwise.
The story begins with Kumiko finding a hidden VHS tape of the 1996 movie Fargo and being convinced that it is not fiction but actually a true story, and one that can lead her to treasure hidden somewhere in a field in the American midwest. With pressure to mounting from both her boss and her mother to ‘make something of herself’, she eventually reaches breaking point and absconds to America with her handbag and her company’s credit card, determined to find the treasure and gain the freedom that she’s been searching for.
The biggest drawback of the film is undeniably the pacing, and a few scenes in particular drag on far longer than they need to. That said, most of this slowness comes from long, almost loving shots of the American landscape in winter, offering a very beautiful experience even if not a lot is really happening. Zellner is clearly very much in love with the Minnesota and North Dakota, and this shines through.
The film also pokes gentle fun at the sheltered middle American characters that Kumiko encounters on her journey, from the evangelists at the airport when she arrives, to the widow whose only knowledge of Japan is through the novel Shogun, to the sweet-natured policeman (David Zellner himself) who takes her to the Chinese restaurant in the hopes they will speak Japanese. They all come across as very charming, although painfully realistic at times.
It is one of the few notes of realism in the second half of the film, though, as the story takes on an almost fairytale feel as Kumiko leaves Japan to travel to America and find her fortune. At this point the narrative takes a few leaps that seem confusing and illogical at the time, but make a strange kind of sense afterwards. Kumiko in particular makes a series of very odd decisions, many of which can only be explained by pretending the whole thing is one big fairy tale and that the story runs on that wonderfully simple fairytale logic.
And in many ways it does – although the film claims to be ‘based on a true story’ (much in the same way Fargo bills itself) it’s actually based on an urban legend surrounding the death of Takako Konishi, a Japanese office worker who died of exposure in the Minnesota wilderness. While the urban legend states that Konishi (like Kumiko) believed that the film Fargo was real and died seeking the treasure buried by Steve Buscemi’s character at the end, what really happened is far less whimsical and far more sad.
As documentary filmmaker Paul Berczeller discovered, the Fargo story had come about after Konishi (who spoke no English) had mentioned the word ‘Fargo’ when asking for directions in North Dakota. The police officer she spoke to jumped to the conclusion that she had been looking for the treasure, and this was the story that got shared with reporters and with the rest of the world. What actually happened, though, was that Konishi had been abandoned by her boyfriend and, after sending a suicide note to her parents, went out into the wilderness to die.
Her boyfriend had been from Fargo.
Zellner, however, takes a far more fantastic approach, and Kumiko casts off the gritty, tragic reality of its source material in favour of a whimsical and charming film that manages to turn a tragedy into a sweet (albeit slow) fairy tale about buried treasure, big adventures and adorable bunny rabbits.